April 13, 2016
Well the first race with the Nitro Conspiracy team of Sam Wills is in the books, and what a story!
(check out the mook to the left of the bike)
This was the first race of the 2016 ManCup season, which is a five race series this year as opposed to four in 2015.
Sam and the crew were scheduled to run Friday April 8, during the regular qualifying, but decided to do some testing Thursday on Dennis Bradley’s bike Sam was finishing up. We just couldn’t take another extra day away from work, so we elected to leave Thursday morning from the shop, which put at the track, South Georgia Motorsports Park (SGMP), near Valdosta Georgia, at about 9 o’clock Friday morning. Nothing like 17 hours in a car and three hours at a rest stop to put you at your best!
Friday proceeded at a rather leisurely pace and when it came time to run, off we went.
The run started off well enough, but turned ugly at about 800 feet. A nozzle line problem caused the motor to go lean and torch at least one piston. This pressurized the crankcase beyond the capacity of the breather system and proceeded to pump oil out of the valve cover gasket joint. Now the exhaust pipes, running at over 1800 degrees live just below this joint, so you can guess what happened next…..FIRE! There are a number of videos on Youtube and Cycledrag.net that show this event. It certainly got Sam’s attention and the trucks were rolling as went by them.
I was afforded a unique perspective on this particular episode.
My newest task that I self-imposed for this season was to be at the end of the track (i.e. “the big end”) to turn the motor over after the run to try and get the red-hot exhaust valves to re-form into the correct shape after the run, like some of the fuel dragsters do. But I had seriously misjudged three things on this first pass. One was how quickly a Top Fuel Bike goes down the track, even if it was hurt. Two was how long the SGMP shut down was. The third area of error was my travelling velocity at a dead trot and how long I could do that. A shortage of ready transport relegated me to a footrace that I realized I would not win after the first pair went by. I passed the finish line and was halfway down the half mile shutdown area when I heard Sam doing his burnout. I recognized the exhaust note, having heard it before a time or two. I tried to pick up the pace, but to no avail, the old pins just weren’t able to give me any more. I heard him leave the line.
The run sounded pretty good, but I was losing too much steam to pay attention to how long the bike was running at full throttle. I did turn around in time to see Sam flying by followed by a cloud of smoke and spray. I was wondering if there was going to be anything to turn over at all, but kept chugging in the hope there was.
As it turned out, there was. The oil was everywhere, and I immediately started turning over the motor just in case there were exhaust valves in there that would benefit from the new regimen. It was to be a fortunate choice borne out later in the weekend.
Fortunately Sam wasn’t hurt, and was covered with a 70 weight oil sheen that looked magnificent in the Georgia sunset.
Pulling back to the pits, I knew it would be a long night.
Once back, the cleanup process began. Out comes the brake parts cleaner (low VOC I might add, and alcohol-based) and rags. Spray and wipe, spray and wipe, spray and wipe again and again. When enough of the oil was off to allow it to be put up in the air, the disassembly and assessment process began. Off comes the bodywork and the process of changing engines began. Pulling the exhaust revealed a lot of damage in the engine bay from the fire. Air control lines, wire ties and anything not shrouded was toast. Until a person gets involved with Nitro 70 motor oil, it is hard to describe how sticky and at the same time slippery it is. You could use it as a hair mousse and it is an effective adhesive, allowing every little bit of debris to stick to you. Pebbles, old pieces of cable ties (sharp ends on those), cigarette butts, rubber from the tire, the list is endless.
I was relegated to exhaust pipe duty, which provided entertainment for the next two hours with a piece of Scotchbrite and a can of contact cleaner, removing the burned-on oil residue before it had a chance to be fully cured by the next start-up.
By midnight we had the motor in and enough assembly done to put the bike in the trailer and go the motel for a controlled crash into bed.
At 7:30 the next morning, we all met at the track and finished the assembly.
For the initial startup the oil needed to be warmed up to 100 degrees F or so to allow the motor to be spun over. The Nitro 70 oil used is slow-moving at 70 degrees and at the 45 degree temperature the morning showed us, it would slow the crank-over to a crawl. A little double boiler action with a crockpot and away we go.
With the warm oil installed, the motor was cranked over to verify oil pressure in the new bullet. When that was done, it was time for the startup on sprayed in alcohol. This procedure allows the timing to be set, the motor warmed up and checking for oil and primary fuel leaks. It also allows the motor to be repeatedly started and shut off without having to go through the routine of clearing it out if run on nitro.
Mike Dryden primed the motor and Bruno spun it over with the starter. Silence. Mike rechecked the sprayer and Bruno cranked it again……still silence. This problem was to dog the team for the rest of the week end and I am dying of curiosity to know what the cause is, which hopefully will be determined when the mag is sent in for testing and evaluation. Unplugging and plugging in the primary terminals on the mag body resulted in spark and the ability to try to finish the timing adjustments. It was this time the three year old batteries decided to have a senior moment and if you aren’t spinning the motor over fast enough and you light it, the possible resulting backfire can be disastrous.
So now it was off to the autoparts store to get two new batteries. Todd Uhlman, a sponsor and crew member was gone and back in no time at all. Todd is known for his grand prix style of driving and it worked to our benefit this time. By the time we got the batteries installed, it was discovered they weren’t charged, adding another dimension of entertainment.
New batteries and a possible temporary solution to the spark issue gave us hope. We were at the call time for the first Saturday qualifying session, and still not quite ready. It was a hard decision for Sam to make, but he elected to wait for the second session later in the day to make a pass. This was to be another decision that would work in our favor later on, unbeknownst to us.
Finishing up the detail work on the bike consumed another hour and a half, and now we wait.
The Saturday night qualifier was a session that showed that there must have been something hurt or disrupted by the fire in Friday night’s pass.
Being down on the big end again, I wasn’t privy to what happened directly, but this was an instance where the cam chain tensioner was pushed out of the block and the oiling began anew.
So in went the third engine. Realizing that there was little likelihood of an uneventful Sunday, we pulled the head off the last engine and began the process of rebuilding it. The number one cylinder had suffered, killed the spark plug and then proceeded to feed the porcelain and ground strap to the exhaust valve. This process of hot-forging made for a pretty beat up valve. Wandering the pits looking for a valve facing machine landed me in John Alwine’s pits where we tried out his garage sale facer, a venerable old machine that was interesting. John’s clean sheet motor, the ATF-1 is a work of art and showing huge promise, being ridden by Kerry Hogan.
Well, nobody else in the place had a valve facer, so back I go to sort through the spares and come up with the best possible solution. Luckily Chris Hand, of redneck Express fame had some valve lapping compound and after finding the most likely candidate, it was lapped in and installed. After struggling with the clearances, we made enough progress to allow us to head back to the motel at midnight.
Sunday dawned bright and beautiful and we were back at it again. Today it was for real.
Finishing up the cylinder head, Sam elected to build the second motor with the head just completed, as it is usually less time to swap motors than top ends, so on it went. It is a bit of an adjustment acclimating one’s self to a reversed head program and the first go on cam timing took a long time. I finally got my head around it and assembled the motor.
The first round of eliminations afforded us a bye run, as Chris Hand was unable to make the call due to a transmission shaft issue. Down on the big end I heard Sam leave, strike the tire and get back after it again. The reasoning for this was to have lane choice in the next round by virtue of a lower elapsed time (e.t.). The downside was that it detonated #1 again and torched the block, spraying molten aluminum around in the rear of the engine bay. It comes to pass that we ran Larry McBride the next round, so lane choice would have been nice, but Larry ran quicker than we did so he got to choose his lane.
Replacing some more burned items we were out of complete engines, having hurt all three we brought along. Now it was time for the mechanics to go to work.
Sam wasn’t happy with the inability of the cam chain to be properly tensioned in the second motor I assembled, so off comes the head and block and it goes onto the bottom end in the bike. So much for the cam timing lesson that morning.
With the new-ish top end on the motor, we were still struggling with the magneto issues and got ready in time for the second round, thanks to the schedule being juggled a bit to bring our eight bike fields in line with the sixteen bike fields in the other eliminators as far as semi and final rounds went. The bike started to shed bolts in the motor mount and primary pulley area now, too. All the bolts holding on the outer front primary pulley guide needed to be replaced as well as right side mount bolts needing retightening. This was new development this weekend, after the first fire.
Running against Larry “Spiderman” McBride is always a big deal. He is the icon of Top Fuel Motorcycle Drag Racing. Larry and his brother Steve have almost single-handedly kept the Top Fuel class alive in the last 6 or 7 years. It is like running John Force, you always bring your “A” game.
Once again, I was down on the big end and heard the race from there. It sounded like it was a good one and my only indication of the result was Larry’s somewhat subdued demeanor as he rounded the bend to the return road. Sam was a few yards back so I had to ask, and I heard a very quiet “we beat him”. Having known Larry for well over 30 years and being aware of how hard he has been working on the new bike, it was a quiet fist bump with Sam in celebration. It was a 6.07 to a 6.74 margin, with Sam running 220 mph on three cylinders, having lost #4 right at the hit.
Well the cam chain tensioner was broken again with the resulting oil and this was perplexing and severely straining our cleaner supply.
Surveying the damage and the remaining parts, it was a tough call. The only head remaining was the one on the first hurt motor that had been reinstalled in Terry Kizer’s rolling chassis. It was put back in there because the motor stands normally used hadn’t been brought, and unfortunately Harry Larteague had headed back to Houston at four o’clock that morning, taking Dennis’ bike And thus our rolling spare parts bin with him.
The scene was a bit chaotic, with all of our crew there along with Terry and Rick from the Houston Motorsports crew pitching in.
The place looked like a bomb had gone off in the trailer and blown all the parts out in the pit. Tables full of cylinder heads, blocks, cams and pistons were everywhere, looking a bit like a Top Fuel rummage sale.
Larry McBride came by on his pit bike, looked at the scene, shook his head and zoomed away.
As the motor was starting to go together, Tracy Kile, our opponent in the final round came by and said he needed to replace a chunked rear tire before the final, and wondered if he would have time to do that. Looking up with arms elbow-deep in engine I suggested it would be fine and that should take all the time he needed and at a relaxed pace. He looked at me a bit funny and went to change the tire.
Mike was busy with the clutch, resetting the cannon on the clutch and making sure we had a decent chance of getting down the track.
It was at this point we saw our tire had chunked and the new steel sprocket we had put on to outlast the aluminum ones that shed teeth last year was collapsing. So off comes the rear wheel and a new rear sprocket was found in the trailer. The only challenge was that it was a 55 tooth versus the 54 used before. This changes the clutch mapping as the leverage exerted on the system changes, and thus the speed and timing of the clutch engagement does as well. It is a bit of guess, but well within the provinces of Mike and Delvin.
The thrash continued and when the call for the Top Fuel Final went out we were just buttoning it up. A decision was made to at least fire it on alcohol, and it was quickly done, including the mag plug fiddle.
Bodywork and the lower clutch and oil panels went on as the bike was coming down. Rolling back out to pull over to the staging lanes, everyone was looking at the bike to be certain nothing was visibly wrong because of all the work that had been done by so many people in a short amount of time. Nothing fell off and there were no funny noises as he rolled into the lanes, so it must have been at least adequate to this point.
With the sun going down, track conditions begin to change and experience at a particular track is a huge benefit, as it allows you to predict, to a certain degree, the traction that may be available. It used to be you put all the power you could in the motor and let it fly, but with horsepower numbers exceeding 1500, it is more a cat and mouse game with the clutch being the variable in the equation. At Valdosta, the left lane, more effectively shaded by the stands to the west is the first to cool off at the end of the day. You are more likely to swing for the fences with a track temperature in the 79 to 89 degree range.
There is always a lot of tension before any final round and Top Fuel has the most. It is the fastest and loudest class there and usually the last, so everyone is ready to see the “clash of the titans”.
The call went to fire them up and Sam’s bike came to life. We all were listening and when Mike turned on the nitro, a drop in rpms could be heard. He gave it a bit more throttle and it started idling at the normal rpms…..phew!
After Sam burned across the line, Tracey Kile began his burnout. The Harleys are usually a bit shorter in duration and distance as they seem to need less, and it is always embarrassing to blow up in the waterbox.
As the bikes were pushed back to the line, all of our eyes were on Sam to see if there were any causes for concern. These can range from a visible leak to strange header flames.
With the deafening staccato of the four cylinder blending into the drumming of the Harley, it was quite the symphony.
As the bikes staged, a lot of people forgot to breathe, including me.
The light came down and they left together.
Sam started to accelerate away, but Tracy started to catch up. It was anybody’s guess at the finish line but the win light came on in Sam’s lane and it was as if the weight of the world was lifted at that moment.
On the way to the winner’s circle
As a final round it was special for both teams. For Tracey Kile, many congratulations! It was a career best e.t. and speed, his first Top Fuel final round and there will be more, I’m sure. He’s too good a rider on too good a bike to think otherwise.
For Sam, it was his first win in many years and the first for the Nitro Conspiracy team in the three and a half years they have been together. Mike Dryden got to go to the winner’s circle for the first time in a while himself. Me, I haven’t been in a Top Fuel winner’s circle since the 1990’s, and it feels good to be back.
Looking back, if we had made that first Saturday round of qualifying, we wouldn’t have had enough parts to finish the eliminations, harkening back to the prophetic aspect of that.
I can only try to express how proud I was of the Nitro Conspiracy team. There wasn’t an ounce of quit in them, even when at the end it was looking as if we wouldn’t make it to the final call. To have the opportunity to work for Sam Wills and Mike Dryden, along with Delvin Clark, Dale Thompson, Todd Uhlman, and Bruno is a rare one. The help from Rick, and turbo legend Terry Kizer added another facet to the fun. I keep forgetting the gentleman from Wichita that helped push back and manhandle the tire with Bruno, but thanks to him as well.
After the winner’s circle photos, we finished loading up and Patty and I hit the road for home. Commitments the next day in Madison kept the pedal to the metal. I wasn’t much help for the first six or eight hours, but struggled to the surface after that.
The final tally after talking to Sam mid-week, was two cylinder heads, three sets of bearings (main and rod), three connecting rods, four pistons two cylinder blocks a tire and two sprockets. A lot of fixing yet to be done to get ready for the next race at Rockingham in June.
Coming back home I also was presented with the reasons I can go do this madness and want to thank Fred Weege, Nick Moore, and Bill Shields. Without them I couldn’t even leave town and I sure missed Nick and Fred alongside me at the racetrack.
A separate expression of gratitude goes out to Steve and Kelly Myrland who put on “Morning Movement Mayhem” without which, this old dog couldn’t learn new tricks. The conditioning and training afforded me in the program keeps me able to go for three days of thrashing.
And of course thank to Sam Wills and the Nitro Conspiracy team for letting me help.
Well, off to make even more parts for the double.